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Controversies of Colossians 2

Colossians 2:14, 2:16, Colossian controversy, Paul, Epistle, handwriting, nail, cross, dogma, New Moon, Sabbath, Holy Days, Gnostic, Gnosticism

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There are some scriptures in Colossians 2 that have been greatly misunderstood.  For some people a short answer might be appropriate, but in some cases the great bulk of the chapter is misunderstood.  A short answer is probably not sufficient for someone that sees the whole chapter from a skewed perspective.

The primary skewed perspective that people have been taught regarding Colossians 2 is that "Judaizers" were trying to pull the Colossian congregation back to Judaism and keeping the law.  In fact, this is not what Colossians indicates.  Understanding the history and make-up of this group of believers helps us to understand the problems they were facing.  It is actually highly unlikely that there was any Jew among them.

Paul warned them to "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (Col 2:8).  The law is not associated with philosophy, vain deceit, traditions of men or rudiments of the world.  Jesus condemned the Jews for voiding the law by their traditions (Mark 7:8).  The law is not a fundamental aspect or rudiment of the world, but of God in opposition to the way of this world.  The world in general has never upheld the instruction of the Creator as recorded by Moses.

The first of the scriptures that confuse most people is Colossians 2:14.

"having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross."

In preparation to understand what Paul is saying we need to look at some words that he used. The original Greek word behind 'handwriting' is 'cheirographon '.  Thayer's Greek Lexicon lists two basic meanings.

1) a handwriting, what one has written by his own hand

2) a note of hand or writing in which one acknowledges that money has either been deposited with him or lent to him by another, to be returned at the appointed time

The Greek word behind 'requirements' is 'dogma '.  Thayer's Greek Lexicon lists three basic meanings.

1) doctrine, decree, ordinance

2) the rules and requirements of the law of Moses; carrying a suggestion of severity and of threatened judgment

3) of certain decrees of the apostles relative to right living

We should note that the subject of this sentence is this 'handwriting'. It is something written by hand, 'what one has written by his own hand'.  In the Greek text this word is singular.  This is in agreement with 'was against us'.  'Was' is also singular. ('Requirements' is plural, so is not connected with the verbs or pronouns of the sentence and is therefore not the subject.)  So this handwriting is what was against us.  That is, 'what was written by our own hand' was against us.  What have we done that could be held against ourselves?

The previous verse gives us a solid clue.  "He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses".  Verse 14 is a continuation of the thought stated in the second half of verse 13.  Paul is explaining how we are forgiven.  Jesus Christ blotted out what we did with His crucifixion.  As is so common with native Hebrew speakers, they repeat themselves especially when they emphasize.  It's known as Hebrew parallelism.  That is what Paul is doing with verse 14.  He is restating that our sins are erased.

The secondary definition of 'handwriting' gives us another clue.  "a note of hand or writing in which one acknowledges that money has either been deposited with him or lent to him by another, to be returned at the appointed time".  In short, an IOU.  Paul is metaphorically treating the sin that we have done as a debt that can be blotted out or crossed off, i.e., forgiven.

There is no mention of the law here.  The primary definition of 'dogma', which is often assumed to refer to the law typically refers to rulings of civil governments or decrees by rulers.  The secondary definition given by Thayer could indicate the law is involved here, but a careful examination of this definition and other scriptural use of this word leave that in serious doubt.

"Dogma' is actually in the plural form in the Greek text.  It is not the object of the verbs or pronouns of this sentence, which are singular.  So even if the laws are intended, they are not what 'was against' or contrary to the Colossians.  Neither were the laws nailed to the cross, but the sin, the debt we incurred on our own.  That was in effect nailed to the cross in that Jesus death atoned for that sin/debt.  He took our guilt upon Himself and paid the required penalty.  That is how we are forgiven.

Colossians 2:16-17

"So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ."

Someone in Colossi was chiding someone else about the annual festivals, the new moon and the weekly Sabbath observance.  If we notice just a few things about the translation of this verse, we get an entirely different perspective.

The Greek word behind 'regarding' is 'meros'.  It actually means 'a part', not 'regarding'.  How did the translators come up with 'regarding'?

One way to communicate 'a part' is with the idiom, 'in this respect'.  It is evidently possible for 'meros' to be used in a way consistent with this idiom.  The King James Version translators evidently tried to make this connection.  The KJV uses 'in respect of' in this verse.  Other versions often key off the KJV.  'Regarding' (NKJV) is similar in meaning to 'in respect of'.  Unfortunately, this KJV translation is a blatant abuse of translation.  One cannot take the words of an idiom, toss one out and expect the remaining phrase to carry the same meaning as the original idiom.  Yet this is apparently what was done and other translators have been quick to fall in line.

The phrase 'in respect of' in Colossians 2:16 carries the meaning of 'in honoring' or 'keeping', not 'a part'.  It is a rendering of the text that borders on blatant dishonesty.  'In this respect' and 'in respect of' carry two entirely different meanings.  'In respect of' carries no connection with 'a part' at all.

There are other improvements that can be made in translating these verses as well.  The words behind 'food' and 'drink' are more often used to refer to 'eating' and 'drinking'.  Also, in verse 17, there is no 'is' in the original text.  The same people that mistranslated 'meros' evidently liked the text better with the 'is' too.  It really clouds what Paul was saying.

With those thoughts in mind, a better translation of Colossians 2:16-17 would be: 'Let no man therefore judge you in eating, or in drinking, or in any part of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body of Christ.'

The body of Christ, the church (Col 1:24, I Cor 12:27) judges HOW one is to celebrate the Sabbaths and new moons.  The problem addressed here is not whether or not to celebrate these occasions, but how to celebrate them.  The concern is with various aspects or parts of these festivals.  The exact problem seems to be that the Colossians were being criticized for their 'eating and drinking'.

It makes no sense to criticize their behavior in an aspect of the festivals if they were not keeping the festivals.  Contrary to the general assumption that the troublemakers in Colossi were Jews, it is much more likely they were Gnostics.  Many Gnostics were ascetic.  The celebration of the annual festivals is not typically a chintzy affair.  It should be no surprise that ascetics would not approve of a typical Jewish Festival celebration.  Although the Colossians were not Jews by nationality, they undoubtedly looked to the Jews for examples of how to celebrate these festivals. (I Thes 2:13-14)

Colossian Heresy

If you haven't been through the brief examination of the background of the Colossian church, now would be a good time to do that.  By understanding a bit about those to whom Paul wrote, we can better understand what he is telling them.

"O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge" (I Timothy 6:20).  'Knowledge' here is the Greek word 'gnosis', which is the source of the name Gnostic.  There is significant evidence that Gnostics were attracted to Christianity, but many evidently kept much of their original belief system.  Paul is directly naming this group to Timothy with instructions to avoid them.  It stands to reason there was a reason he felt he needed to do this.  They were a problem and were pushing their philosophy on Christians.

A footnote from the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) 11th edition, topic GNOSTICISM says this: "These ideas may possibly be traced still further back, and perhaps even underlie St Paul's exposition in Col ii 15."  The philosophy actually predated Christianity by a long time.  This article makes it clear that Gnosticism and Christianity interacted with one another a lot in the early centuries CE/AD.

Much of the first chapter of Colossians is spent establishing the credentials of Jesus Christ.  Paul concludes that He is preeminent above all and He is the choice of the Father to reconcile everyone to the Father (Vs. 18-20).  Although the Gnostic religion/ philosophy didn't originally include Jesus Christ, there were some similarities.  Consequently, Gnosticism did not reject Christ, but redefined him to their own liking.  So in Colossians, Paul didn't need to defend Jesus existence, but demonstrate that He was unique and not just one of several special beings.

Paul's use of 'fullness' (vs. 1:19) is interesting.  Certainly Paul intends to put everything in Christ's domain.  However, the Greek word behind 'fullness' is 'pleroma'.  This word had a special meaning to this philosophy called Gnosticism.  The Jewish New Testament Commentary tells us "'Pleroma' was a technical term used by the Gnostics and their antecedents to refer to the totality of the various spiritual 'levels' and the beings or entities presumed to exist there . . ." (p. 605, JNTC, by David H. Stern).  Instead of advancing slowly up the ladder to the next spiritual level, Christ, the image of the Father, comes to live life in the conduct of the believer (Col 1:27).

As it turns out Paul 'just happened' to use a number of words that held special meaning to the Gnostics.  This is another indicator that he was countering their influence.  He redefines their words.  Another favorite word was 'musterion', mystery.  It referred to a religious secret that was confided only to the initiated, a secret rite.  Paul used the word four times in Colossians and clarified what the real mystery was.

We begin to get descriptive clues to the identification of those trying to influence the Colossians away from the faith in Colossians 2:4.  "Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words."  We learn more in verse 8. "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ."

These people deal in a worldly philosophy that is in accord with traditions of men.  This heresy's attractiveness rests in persuasive words, not reliance on the authority of the Hebrew scriptures.  It is simple empty deceit.  As with most of Satan's counterfeits, though, it probably sounds good and probably contains some good, but a lie is a lie even if much is true.

Judaizers are not called philosophers in scripture.  (The only other philosophers Paul ran into were in Athens, Acts 17:18.)  He never called Judaizers philosophers elsewhere.  Encouraging the keeping of the law could hardly be called empty deceit, just a few years before everyone acknowledges it was in full force.  Acts 21:24 would certainly make Paul guilty of empty deceit in this case.  Paul purified himself and some others at the temple once he returned from one of his journeys.  Certainly the Jews had their traditions of men, but the law was hardly a tradition of men.  Moses certainly didn't think so.

'Elements of the world' is mentioned in Galatians 4:3.  It seems similar to 'principles of the world' mentioned in verse 8 above.  In the context of Galatians 3 & 4, it applies to Gentiles before they came to know the Creator as well as to Jews.  They were both under guardians and the elements, expectations or traditions of their world as children.  So principle or elements of the world covered both Jew and gentile.  The Law of Moses was not universally recognized, so would not be intended by the phrase 'principles of the world'.  The problem in Colossi was from another direction, not from adherents of the law.

Nowhere in Colossians is there an accusation against Judaizers or against anyone keeping any law of the old covenant.  Circumcision is mentioned (vs. 2:11).  That doesn't mean that there were Judaizers involved.  Circumcision of the heart is an absolutely vital aspect of being a true Christian.  It seems quite appropriate that circumcision be mentioned.  The Gnostic rites were empty in comparison to the peace and sound mindedness that comes with the spirit of God and circumcision of the heart.

Let me draw a number of quotes from the Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) 11th edition, topic GNOSTICISM (available at http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Gnosticism).  This article sheds significant light on the topics Paul addresses in Colossians 2.

"Thus the essential part of most of the conceptions of what we call Gnosticism was already in existence and fully developed before the rise of Christianity. But the fundamental ideas of Gnosticism and of early Christianity had a kind of magnetic attraction for each other. What drew these two forces together was the energy exerted by the universal idea of salvation in both systems. Christian Gnosticism actually introduced only one new figure into the already existing Gnostic theories, namely that of the historical Savior Jesus Christ.

"Indirectly, however, Gnosticism was certainly one of the most powerful factors in the development of Christianity in the 1st century.

"Gnosticism has combined the two, the Greek opposition between spirit and matter, and the sharp Zoroastrian dualism...

"The basis of the Gnostic religion and world-philosophy lies in a decided Oriental dualism.

"Another characteristic figure of Gnosticism is that of the Primal Man... we meet with the man who existed before the world, the prophet who goes through the world in various forms, and finally reveals himself in Christ.

"And since the Gnostics were compelled to draw the figure of the Savior into a world of quite alien myths, their Christology became so complicated in character ………"

In summarizing one set of Gnostic writings the Britannica states: "In these confused records of human imagination gone mad, we possess a veritable herbarium of all possible Gnostic ideas, which were once active and now rest peacefully side by side.

"This knowledge of theirs was not based on reflection, on scientific inquiry and proof, but on revelation."

Would it be a stretch for Paul to describe that approach as "philosophy", "empty deceit", "tradition of men" or holding basic "principles of the world" as in vs. 8?  It seems like a rather good fit.  We hit on all four of Paul's connections.

Further description of the Gnostics includes: "Another characteristic feature of the Gnostic conception of the universe is the role played in almost all Gnostic systems by the seven world-creating powers."

This might explain why Paul reiterates in vs. 9 &10 that Christ is complete and is the head of all principalities and powers.  The Colossians didn't need seven deities.

Going on Britannica says: "Above all we can see ….how great a part the sacraments played in the Gnostic sects. Everywhere we are met with the most varied forms of holy rites- the various baptisms, by water, by fire, by the spirit the baptism for protection against demons, anointing with oil, sealing and stigmatizing, piercing the ears, leading into the bridal chamber, partaking of holy food and drink. Finally sacred formulas, names and symbols are of the highest importance among the Gnostics sects. We constantly meet with the idea that the soul, on leaving the body, finds its path to the highest heaven opposed by the deities and demons of the lower realms of heaven, and only when it is in possession of the names of these demons, and can repeat the proper holy formula, or is prepared with the right symbol, or has been anointed with the holy oil, finds its way unhindered to the heavenly home."

However, Paul points out v11-14 that the sacraments God requires are circumcision without a knife by putting off sin.  This is one with baptism and faith toward God who raised Christ from the dead and offers the Colossians life as well through Christ by forgiving their transgressions (not by eliminating the law).

It is not the decrees, which was hostile to us, but the handwriting, the debt was hostile to us.  The singular verbs and pronouns need to be connected to the singular noun in verse 14.  What is being blotted out is the debt against us that we wrote ourselves.  The metaphor is that we created or wrote the debt by our actions not by actually writing on a piece of paper.  To say that personal debt is some kind of metaphor for the Old Covenant or Mosaic Law is to be desperate to avoid the historical meaning and context of the words.

What we have is Paul explaining that attaining salvation is not a matter of "an immense system of names and symbols."(EB), but the miraculous blotting out of our past offenses once we repent, i.e., accept Yeshua the Christ and change direction.

And whereas with the Gnostics, "We constantly meet with the idea that the soul, on leaving the body, finds its path to the highest heaven opposed by the deities and demons of the lower realms of heaven, and only when it is in possession of the names of these demons, and can repeat the proper holy formula, or is prepared with the right symbol, or has been anointed with the holy oil, finds its way unhindered to the heavenly home."  Paul makes it clear that Christ has disarmed these principalities and powers and showed them to be fakes (vs. 2:15).

One thing the Gnostics did advocate, indirectly hinted at here, was heavy reliance on penitence to make up for misdeeds.  They also practiced rituals that allowed them to get up to the next rung on the ladder to Heaven.  No wonder Paul emphasized so the forgiveness available through the sacrifice of Christ and circumcision of the heart done without hands.  He has indeed shown all the worlds systems to be fakes and frauds (v15).  False humility and neglect of the body doesn't cut it.  Asceticism is not the way to salvation.

Why would the Sabbath and Holy days come up in this context? Perhaps some clue can be derived from the Britannica:

"The Old Testament was absolutely rejected by most of the Gnostics...

"...almost all of the Gnostic sects take up a definitely hostile attitude towards the Jewish religion.

"Above all the Gnostics represented and developed the distinctly anti-Jewish tendency in Christianity..."

Perhaps the Gnostics knew what Paul wrote in I Corinthians 5:8, "Therefore let us keep the feast [of Unleavened Bread (Passover)]…" or knew that Christians looked to scripture, i.e. the Hebrew scriptures, which is all that existed at the time.  These indicate that certainly the Sabbath, Holy Days and New Moons were to be respected.  The Gnostics on the other hand "absolutely rejected" this revelation and would undoubtedly have an opinion to express to anyone who deemed these items worthy of respect.  Certainly there would be no reason for this matter to have surfaced but that the Colossians were respecting the Sabbath, Holy Days and New Moons.  The Gnostics certainly were not respecting them and evidently had a strong and vocal aversion to them.

Let's look at a little more of what the Britannica has to say:

Gnostics "...saw instead two hostile worlds standing in contrast to each other like light and darkness. And out of the combination of these two dualisms arose the teaching of Gnosticism, with its thoroughgoing pessimism and fundamental asceticism. .. widespread was the idea of seven powers who created this lower material world and rule over it... These Seven, then, are in most systems half-evil, half hostile powers; they are frequently characterized as "angels," and are reckoned as the last and lowest emanations of the Godhead;...

"In all these accounts the idea is expressed that so far as his body is concerned man is the work of the angels who created the world.

"...in a few of its later representations Gnosticism assumed a more refined and spiritual aspect, and even produced blossoms of a true and beautiful piety,..

"But names symbols and formulas are not efficacious by themselves: the Gnostic must lead a life having no part in the lower world ruled by these spirits, and by his knowledge he must raise himself above them to the God of the world of light.

"These little Gnostic sects and groups all lived in the conviction that they possessed a secret and mysterious knowledge, in no way accessible to those outside, which was not to be proved or propagated, but believed in by the initiated, and anxiously guarded as a secret. This knowledge of theirs was not based on reflection, on scientific inquiry and proof, but on revelation.

"All alike boast a mystic revelation and deeply-veiled wisdom."

Is it any wonder then that Paul warned the Colossians not to look to those proponents of false humility, worship of angels, intruding into those things not seen and being puffed up in their fleshly mind, who don't look to God: v18-19, but to their various sacraments and regulations.

'Intruding' is Greek "embateuon"Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament tells us that embateuon ". . . is used inversely to signify the action of those who have just received the mysteries (vol. II, p. 535)"  It's another special Gnostic word.

Going on...

"And finally, as in many mystical religions, so here too, holy rites and formulas, acts of initiation and consecration, all those things which we call sacraments, play a very prominent part."

"...an attitude of absolute indifference towards this lower and material world and the practice of asceticism.

"...and carnal pleasure is frequently looked upon as forbidden. Then again asceticism sometimes changes into wild libertinism."

Again is it a surprise Paul wondered why the Colossians might "subject yourselves to regulations "(NKJV), "commandments and doctrines of men" including other things that might have "an appearance of wisdom .. self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body"? (NKJV)  Isn't that what asceticism is?

Further on in chapter 3 Paul mentions other conduct to be avoided.  One can assume these things were a problem too.  The first two things mentioned were fornication and uncleanness.  Passion would tend to be mixed up with these items too.  According to Thayer's Greek lexicon the word for uncleanness carries with it "in a moral sense, the impurity of lustful, luxurious or profligate living".  This is interesting too since the EB says: "Particularly instructive in this connexion is the fact that in those very sects... unbridled prostitution appears as a distinct and essential part of the cult."  These traits are not attributed to Judaizers.

The book of Colossians counters gentile Gnostics much better than it does any Jewish heresies.  There are some that think it is countering Jewish Gnostics.  Without a single word addressed to a Jew, acknowledging the presence of a Jew or faulting a circumcised individual, it is hard to see that as the intention of the text.

Gnostics believed in their own brand of asceticism, regulations, magic formulas and spirits to elevate them out of the evil physical world up to the plane of spiritual perfection.  Paul doesn't see their conduct as likely to accomplish what they claim it does (vs. 2:23).

Paul's witness shows that the Father set Jesus Christ "to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him" (vs. 1:20). The believer is perfected "by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh" (vs. 2:11) i.e. repentance, then being "buried with Him in baptism" (vs. 2:12) and Christ "having forgiven you all trespasses" (vs. 2:13). "Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, (baptism) why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations" (vs. 2:20).  Paul wonders what benefit the Colossians would receive ".. since you have put off the old man with his deeds, 10 and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him" (vs. 3:9-10).  They should already be "every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (vs. 1:28) "according to the image of Him who created him"

The believer should have already attained the perfection that the Gnostics sought.  At repentance and baptism they should have already "put… off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ" (vs. 2:11).  "And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live" (Deu 30:6).  "This is the covenant that I will make with them …I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them" (Heb 10:16).  The stoney heart should have been gone, replaced with the sinless mind of Jesus Christ (Eze 36:26-27).